“Al HaNissim” “on one foot”:
”Al HaNissim” is prayer we say on Chanukah as part of the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon.
There are 8 English ways to spell the Festival of Lights: Chanukah, Hanukah, Channukah, Hannukah, Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Chanuka, Hanuka. The ninth way is “janukah”, because in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) the “j” makes the “ch” sound (plus "Khanike" in Yiddish). There are only two ways to spell the holiday in Hebrew, though: חנוכה, and חנכה.
Context: This is the beginning of the "Al Hanisim" prayer which we say daily during the Amidah and Birkat HaMazon on Chanukah (and Purim, and Yom HaAtzmaut).
Which miracles happened during the original Chanukah?
What’s the Story?
Context: 1 Maccabees is a book of the Apocrypha. It was originally written in Hebrew by a Jewish author, but it was never included as part of the Tanach. The original Hebrew was lost and most versions we have now are in Greek. It is included in Catholic and Christian Orthodox versions of the Christian Bible, but it is not included in Protestant versions. Most scholars agree it was written very close to the period of the Maccabean revolt (around the year 100 BCE). This section comes after the ragtag band of Jewish farmers have fought off the mightiest army in the world at the time (similar to the American Revolution). The bolded phrases reflect the language that made it into "Al Hanissim".
What part of the story is missing here?
Context: Like 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees isn't part of the Tanach or Protestant Bible. 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek, most likely in Egypt, just a few years after the Maccabean Revolt (around 2nd century BCE). This is the same part of the story that we saw in 1 Maccabees, where the Temple is rededicated after the Syrian-Greeks have been chased off. The bolded phrases reflect the language that made it into "Al Hanissim".
Why is the holiday for 8 days in this text, and who decided it should be celebrated each year?
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 12:319-325 (C.E. 94/95)
319 So on the five and twentieth day of the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apelleus, they lighted the lamps that were on the candlestick, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered burnt-offerings upon the new altar.....323 Now Judah celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms….324 Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. 325 And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival.
Context: Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote extensively about the Second Temple and its destruction. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, he fled to Rome and defected to become a Roman citizen. He wrote his accounts as records for the Romans, and his allegiance was to them. This is his version of the Chanukah story, about 150 years after it happened. We are seeing the same part of the story as before, after Judah Maccabee has won a military victory with his small group against the large army of the Syrian-Greeks. This text references the fact that the original dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert and First Temple both lasted 8 days.
According to Josephus, why is the holiday 8 days, and why is it called “The Festival of Lights”?
Context: This text comes from Pesikta Rabbati, which was a set of midrashim (commentaries) on the Tanach written in the Land of Israel around the same time that the Babylonian Talmud was being written in Babylonia. This selection is commenting on the first verse of Psalm 30 (which is part of the weekday and Shabbat P’sukei D’Zimra warm-up section of our morning services). The verse is being brought as support because “Yavan” later became the name for “Greece”. This is supported by I Maccabees 1:23, which says that Antiochus took away the original menorah.
What explanation is given for why we light lights on Chanukah? What explanation is not given?
Context: This comes from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, which is about Shabbat (logically enough). This text comes after a discussion about the wicks one can use to light Shabbat candles, and whether there is any difference in the wicks one can use to light Chanukah candles (answer: one has more options for Chanukah wicks than Shabbat wicks). This then leads into a discussion about lighting Chanukah candles, and why we even do it in the first place, which is what brings us to our text.
It is important to know that the Babylonian Talmud was written far away from the Land of Israel, and about 600 years after the events of Chanukah. It is also important to know that the rabbis didn’t like the descendants of the Hasmoneans because they took on both the role of king and high priest, because eventually their fratricidal and matricidal civil war over the succession led to Rome being invited in and taking over the land of Israel, and because some of the later Hasmoneans killed large numbers of Pharisees (the forerunners of the Rabbis). Finally, it is important to know that the Rabbis sought to bring G-d into Jewish holidays where G-d was not so readily apparent (such as Purim - see Megilla 7a).
Miron Hirsch points out that if the Maccabees made a make-shift menorah out of spear-ends, then those would hold less oil than the original menorah. Thus, what would have been enough oil for one day in the original menorah could have lasted for eight days in the spear-end menorah.
The underlined phrase reflect the language that made it into "Al Hanissim".
According to this text, why is the holiday 8 days, and why do we still celebrate it today?
Context: This is from Maimonides/Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, his codification of the laws in the Talmud written around 1175 CE. This text is from his section on Chanukah and Purim.
According to Rambam, what do we do on Chanukah, why do we do it, and how do you think he knows that?
How does the story play out in “Al Hanisim”?
The text below comes from the siddur and was written around 875 C.E. It is said daily during Hanukkah during the Amidah and during Birkat HaMazon.
Context: The current text of "Al Hanissim" is taken from the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (section: Seder Hanukkah; he died 875 CE) and the siddur of Rav Sa'adiah Gaon (he died in 942 CE). It is now in the siddur, both in the Amidah and in Birkat HaMazon, and it is said daily during Chanukah (and Purim and Yom HaAtzmaut, both of which have their own versions). Saying the prayer is also mentioned by Rav Achai \ Aha Gaon (Sheiltot d'Rav Achai Gaon, Vayishlach, 26:1), who lived around 750 CE.
A common mistranslation of this prayer is to say that Mattathias’ father is Yochanan the High Priest. Rather, “kohen gadol” here should be translated as “great priest”, according to Reuven Hammer. Mattathias was not a High Priest, because otherwise he would be in Jerusalem instead of in Modi’in. His descendants later took that role.
Which version of the story is reflected here, and who gets the credit for the victory?
If the Syrian-Greeks represent never engaging with Judaism, and if Maccabees represent never engaging with the “modern” world, where does your Jewish identity fall on the spectrum between those two extremes?
When Do We Say “Al Hanissim”?
Context: This is from the Tosefta for Tractate Brachot. The Tosefta is all the material that didn't make it into the Mishnah. It's like if you are making hamantashen and you roll out your dough, the dough that becomes the circles is the Mishnah, and all the dough that doesn't become the circles is the Tosefta.
Why would holidays for which there is no Musaf get mentioned in the blessing of thanks?
Context: This is again from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat. Right before this sugya (section), the text was talking about the appropriate oil to use for lighting Shabbat candles, and then, perhaps inspired by other holidays in which one lights oil, the Talmud goes on to ask about when one talks about Chanukah in Birkat HaMazon. This text is clarifying what to do about mentioning Chanukah in Birkat HaMazon, since it is already known where to say it in the Amidah (see Tosefta Brachot 3:14). It is useful to know that when the Talmud mentions “publicizing the miracle” (pirsum haneis), this is the reason the Talmud gives for why one lights a chanukiah (Shabbat 23b).
Does mentioning Chanukah in Birkat HaMazon publicize the miracle to others or to ourselves, and why should we do it?
Context: This is from Tractate Soferim, which was compiled in 750 CE in Babylonia. It brings together material on which there is no separate tractate in the Babylonian Talmud, like Chanukah. This text shows us how the wording for "Al Hanisim" was beginning to take shape, particularly within the context of the "Blessing of Thanks" within the Amidah. The text in italics is somebody's commentary explaining parts of this text.
Does G-d still do miracles for us today?
Musical Versions of “Al Hanisim”
How do these versions reflect the meaning and mood of the prayer?
This is from the Jewish-American band Safam, released on their album “A Brighter Day” (1986). Here are the lyrics:
Al hanissim v’al hapurkan,
V’al hag’vurot, v’al hat’shuot,
V’al hamilchamot sheasitah
Bayamim haheim baz’man hazeh
Biy’mei Matityahu ben Yochanan
Uviy’mei Mordechai v’Esther hamalka
Uvayamim shel Mar Hertzl uVen Gurion
Amad’tah lahem b’eit tsaratam.
Context: This is the tune that most people know if they know a tune for this prayer. It goes back to the 1970s. This recording is from Dov Frimer in 1975, and he gets most of the credit for the tune. Izhar Cohen released a recording of the same tune a year prior in 1974 which may have been connected with the 6th Chassidic Song Festival (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW3uU0QQwjQ).
Context: This is a Six13 version, sung by Six13 and the Maccabeats together at a Maccabeats concert in 2012.
Thoughts on "Al Hanissim"
"Al Hanissim: Remembering Our Partnership in G-d's Miracles" (Rabbi Rachel Barenblat)
Even as we thank God for doing miracles for our ancestors, we remember that we too played a role in bringing about those miracles. We are partners with God in making space for the miraculous. We must not expect God to perform miracles to redeem us while we sit back and wait.
Like our spiritual ancestors, we’re called to work toward redemption — our own, and that of all creation — in hope and trust that what we do here “below” will arouse the flow from “on high.”
When we speak truth to power, may we, like Esther, be blessed with a turning of the political tide. When we cultivate faith that we will be enough to bring light to darkness, may we, like the Hasmoneans, be blessed with the miracle of our own sufficiency, and the miracle of the light of justice banishing the darkness of bigotry, destruction, and hate.
"Al Hanisim: A Holiday Prayer of Thanks for Everyday Miracles" (Rabbi Elisha Friedman)
The authors of Al Hanisim exclude the oil miracle as if to say, “Now we are praying, thanking God for His goodness and the blessing He bestows on us.” This decision suggests a larger truth about the act of prayer. When we pray, we are thanking God for those things that, while not as flashy as the miracle of the oil, are nevertheless crucial to our freedom and wellbeing.
With appreciation to: Robbie Medwed (whose sheet “Chanukah: The Book of Maccabees vs The Talmud” provided much of the material for this sheet), Geoffrey Stern, Lisa Grushcow, Rebecca Rosenthal, Nina Peretz, Rabbi Josh Pernick, Faustine Sigal, Jeffrey Hoffman, Deborah Miller, MyJewishLearning, Cantor Macy Nulman, and Joel Lurie Grishaver’s work “The True Story of Hanukkah”.
Appendix A: Commentary on Al Hanissim by Reuven Hammer
For the miraculous deliverance - The Modim blessing, into which this prayer is inserted on Chanukah, Purim, and Israel’s Independence Day, speaks about “Your miracles which daily attend us.” Mention is therefore made here of each of the “minor” holidays, those added after the time of the Torah, since each has a miraculous deliverance connected to it. Each commemorates the deliverance of Israel from its enemies under difficult circumstances. The miracles referred to are not supernatural interferences in nature, but rather God working through history. We experience the ability to overcome adversity as a divine act.
In this case, the miracles are the specific historical events connected with the holiday of Chanukah, the triumph of the Jews over the Syrian-Greeks. The beautiful legend of the little jar of oil that lasted for eight days is related in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) as an explanation of the fact that Chanukah is eight days and the lights are lit each night, going from one to eight. The story is not historical and does not appear in the Book of Maccabees or other ancient records of the events. This prayer — very likely the official recounting of the holiday composed at the time of the events — sees the miracle rather in the victory of the few and the weak over the many and the mighty.
Until our time - Including our time. The wonders of deliverance are not confined to ancient times. The text here follows Rav Amram, amending the words to express gratitude for miracles "in other times, at this season" to read "in other times, and in our day (u-vaz'man ha-zeh)."
The wonders of deliverance are not confined to ancient times. They have occurred in modern times as well. In recent times a third holiday, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, has been added to the two ancient ones. Here too we see the establishment of the state of Israel and its ability to overcome its adversaries as a miracle. The paragraph for Yom Ha’atzmaut (and Purim) does not appear in the Shabbat service because Yom Ha’atzmaut (and Purim) never occurs on Friday or Shabbat.
In the days of Mattathias - The story of Chanukah is told briefly here, emphasizing the miraculous deliverance of the small army of the Jews from the might of the great Syrian-Greek empire which sought to impose Hellenism upon the Judeans. The desecration of the Temple took place in 167 BCE and the revolt began the following year. The recovery, cleansing, and rededication of the Temple took place in 164 under the leadership of Mattathias's son Judah, but the fighting was to continue for many years thereafter. The practice of lighting lights each night of Chanukah is explained as a remembrance of the lights that were rekindled in the Temple when it was purified and rededicated. The full story of the revolt is told in the extra-canonical Books of Maccabees.
The revolt against the Syrians was also an internal conflict between the Jewish Hellenists and those remaining true to Judaism. The priest Mattathias and his sons led the struggle and gained control of the Temple in 164 BCE.
The great priest - This is often mistakenly understood as High Priest, which Mattathias was not — although his dynasty later usurped that title.
The wicked Greco-Syrian kingdom - Literally, “the evil Greek kingdom”, referring to the Seleucid empire, one of the Hellenistic dynasties established after the death of Alexander the Great. Its center was in Syria.
Abandon Your Torah - The Torah had been declared the official constitution of Judea by Ezra in 444 BCE. After an inner struggle between different Jewish camps, some of whom wished to drastically reform Judaism by Hellenizing it, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes decreed that the Torah was no longer mandatory. Subsequently he outlawed the observance of the Torah completely as a means of quelling the rebellion.
The right to observe the Torah was at the core of the rebellion. Many perished when they defied the decrees against its observance and were executed for this. This was the first time that religious martyrdom entered Jewish history. Unfortunately, it was not the last.
The strong - i.e. the Syrians.
Kindled lights - The Menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum representing the universe and also the Tree of Life, is the ancient symbol of Judaism. See Exodus 25:31-40. It was kindled every evening and burned continually through the night in the Sanctuary as a sign of God’s presence in the world. Rekindling this light was one of the major features of the rededication ceremony of Chanukah by the Maccabees because it rededicated the Temple to the service of God, and it is commemorated by the lighting of lamps each night of the festival in our own day. Centuries later, the legend of the miraculous jug of oil which lasted for eight days added another dimension to the significance of the lights.
And established these eight days of Chanukah - In the Apocrypha, the Book of Maccabees explains that they rededicated the Temple by celebrating the Sukkot festival -- which lasts for eight days -- since it was the most recent Festival that had not been properly celebrated because of the desecrated status of the Temple. The holiday was originally called "the Sukkot of the month of Kislev".
Chanting praises - Probably an indication of the recitation of Hallel, which is performed every day of Sukkot. It then came to be read every day of Chanukah as well.
Commentary published in Siddur Or Chadash, on pages 8, 37, 119, 160, 176, 238, 290, and 338.
Appendix B: Thoughts on Miracles
Who can retell the heroic deeds of Israel? Who can count them?
In every age, a hero arises to redeem the people.
Listen! In those days at this season, Judah the Maccabee rescued us.
Now in these days all the people of Israel must unite and rise to redeem themselves.
- Menashe Ravina, 1936 (contrast Psalm 106:2)
Rabbi David Hartman, The Courage to Put our Jewish Lights in the Front Window in A Different Light
The major question, which we must ponder on Hanukkah, is whether the Jewish people can develop an identity that will enable it to meet the outside world without feeling threatened or intimidated. The choice, hopefully, need not be ghettoization or assimilation.
Rabbi David Hartman, Trusting in a New Beginning in A Different Light
In considering the miracle of the cruse of oil, our Rabbis asked why the holiday of Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days rather than for seven days. Since there was, by all accounts, sufficient oil for one day, only seven of the eight days of burning may be designated as miraculous days. Though several ingenious explanations were offered, what strikes me as being the miraculous feature of the initial day was the community's willingness to light the lamp in spite of the fact that its anticipated period of burning was short-lived. The miracle of the first day was expressed in the community's willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle expressed by those who lit the lamp and not only the miracle of the lamp's continued burning for eight days.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
- (Attributed to) Albert Einstein